by Rachel Meyer
So Donald J. Trump is our President-elect.
In the week since Trump won the Electoral College, we’ve witnessed an uptick in hate crimes across America. Monday night, Trump appointed Steve Bannon, alt-right head of Breitbart News and a known white supremacist, as chief White House strategist. Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke has celebrated Trump’s win as a victory for his white nationalist movement. And swastikas are appearing all over churches, schools, and bathrooms walls across the country.
It’s already been hard to talk about the results of the election with our children. Now, with white supremacists at the helm, civil rights are in a bad way. As parents, we’re wondering: where can we look for progressive activist role models for our children?
The first thing I’m gonna do is buy my son a Colin Kaepernick jersey.
Kaepernick is a stealth yoga teacher. And it’s got nothing to do with his tight pants.
Kaepernick first declined to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the 49ers’ August 26th preseason game against the Green Bay Packers because, as he put it, he couldn’t “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Kaepernick’s move has sparked outrage across the country, eliciting nationalist critiques, burned jerseys, and even death threats. Earlier this month, just prior to the election, Kaepernick quietly launched a Black Panthers-inspired “Know Your Rights” camp empowering black and Latino students in Oakland, CA to combat oppression.
A few weeks after Kaepernick kicked off his peaceful protest, I led a yoga philosophy training for current teachers. We covered philosophy basics from old school yoga texts like the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, and revisited the often-murky history of yoga. Then we dragged yoga philosophy into the 21st century, brainstorming about where to find alternative texts—the kind of postmodern yoga teachers that hide out in unexpected places, like Ferdinand The Bull or Fight Club or (gasp) even Donald Trump.
One student raised her hand. She brought up Colin Kaepernick.
Brilliant, I thought. Yes; this is what yoga looks like in the real world.
(Before I go any further, I want to be really clear here: I have deep respect and gratitude for the incredible folks who serve in the armed forces. My nieces are proud members of the military, and I am daily inspired by their passion, intelligence, and dedication. I believe you can protest the broken aspects of oppressive American society without disrespecting the brave people who put their lives on the line in service. Patriotism and love of country can, and must, include an ardent critique of the things it could be doing better.)
I grew up in Nebraska. I spent my teenage Saturdays sprawled out on the living room carpet listening to play-by-play radio analysts rave about stellar mid-1990s Husker teams. I know all too well the power of a football-driven culture, the ways in which the game itself can be a kind of state religion, and how players and the coaches that guide them can embody and direct the moral compass of a people (Tom Osborne, anyone?).
So after living in San Francisco for a decade as an adult, I already had Kaepernick on my radar. When he declined to stand for the anthem, his gutsy patriotism rippled throughout my social networks. The engaged Buddhist in me was hooked. The intersectional feminist in me raised a fist in agreement. And the yogi in me took a deep bow.
Most importantly, though, the parent in me realized what a powerful yoga teacher Kaepernick could be for my own young son. My little man is just shy of 3, too young yet to attend one of my yoga classes. Someday he’ll come practice alongside my husband and me. But for now, our job as parents is to model and teach him the philosophical principles underlying the practice.
The more I witness Kaepernick’s movement unfolding, the more I realize he’s the perfect yoga teacher for my preschooler: an embodied archetype of athletic masculinity who’s equally politically progressive and socially engaged, modeling bodhisattva-style service for the greater good.
So how, exactly, is Kaepernick teaching our sons (and daughters) yoga?
1. Stand your ground, with grace. In yoga-speak we call this Sthira Sukham Asanam, the instructions found in Sutra 2.46 that every pose should be a balance of strength and softness, effort and ease. You can stretch this concept (bad pun intended) to apply it to every relationship, every conversation, and every job, so that your life becomes a vision of moving through the world in steadfast grace.
2. Speak your truth. Yogis call this ethical precept satya: speaking truth, even when it’s scary, inconvenient, or controversial. Satya urges you to be brave enough to be real, and to call out injustice, making a case for progressive change. It reminds you to own your morality, even amidst criticism.
In Kaepernick’s case, satya includes being vocal about the fact that he chose not to vote in the election—another controversial decision many of us might disagree with. In post-game interviews last Sunday, Kaepernick explained, “You know, I think it would be hypocritical of me to vote. I said from the beginning I was against oppression, I was against the system of oppression. I’m not going to show support for that system. And to me, the oppressor isn’t going to allow you to vote your way out of your oppression.” (His words, unpopular as they might be, do have a civil rights precedent. Renowned African-American feminist activist Audre Lorde was famous for declaring that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”)
3. Keep learning. Known as svadhyaya, or self-study, this is the process of ongoing critical thinking, being open to learning, approaching everything with a beginner’s mind. Svadhyaya encourages us to take a second look at established “truths” like the sanctity of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (have you checked out that racist final verse?), and to use your evaluative skills to question them.
4. Protest peacefully. The Buddhist and yogic precept of ahimsa, or nonviolence, encourages us to live in a manner that creates less suffering. Kaepernick is modeling peaceful protest while making a powerful case for justice. (Not to mention the fact that he’s also now eating vegan for ethical reasons.) He’s calling out the fact that racist violence and police brutality are unacceptable, inhumane, and un-American—and that something’s gotta change. (Hey, remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? That guy we now laud as a peace-loving activist? He got a lot of flak in his time, too.)
5. Practice asana. The Sanskrit word asana translates to “seat.” Practicing yoga asana is all about finding your empowered seat, that place in your body where you’re grounded and open, capable of being fully present, awake, and at ease. Kaepernick’s choice to take a knee, and his fellow players’ decision to raise a fist, looks a whole lot like asana to me. Asana isn’t always comfortable. Oftentimes it’s awkward, or painful, or frustrating. The yoga comes in learning to stay with the difficult feelings that come up while you’re there. The pose becomes a tool for watching where your mind and breath go in the process.
6. Suffering is real. The word dukkha is often roughly translated as “suffering.” Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths name the universality of suffering. Dukkha is at once an inescapable part of being human and an existential inconvenience we can try to alleviate. Our job as sentient beings is to work to ease one another’s suffering. And it is our own suffering that makes us capable of feeling empathy for one another. Kaepernick’s protest calls out that suffering and urges all of us to move in compassion for greater justice under our flag.
7. Everyone has the same amount of God. In the Bhagavad Gita, one of yoga’s seminal texts, the god Krishna tells Arjuna to “See me in all, and all in me.” In other words: no matter the color of your skin or the religion you practice or the amount of money in your bank account, you, too, are a unique manifestation of the divine, and deserve to be treated as such. Bhakti yoga teacher Ram Dass says this a different way: We’re all God in drag. The Black Lives Matter movement reminds us passionately that we’re all God in drag, and we need to treat one another that way, because America’s got a shameful history of ignoring the divinity in African-Americans, Native Americans, women, disabled folks, LGBTQI folks, and more.
8. Oneness. The underlying spiritual essence of yoga is unity, the idea that we’re all one. There is no other; there is no separation. Your suffering is my suffering. My peace is your peace. We’re all a part of the same body. And it’s time we started acting like that. Kaepernick’s walking the walk by pledging to donate $1 million and the proceeds from his 2016 jersey sales to a variety of social justice organizations who work to alleviate suffering.
9. Keep breathing. Even when folks rage against you. Especially when folks rage against you.
10. Hold your drishti. In yoga philosophy, the word drishti means “one-pointed gaze.” Kaepernick’s got his social justice drishti good and clear. He reminds us to stay focused, to direct our gaze with intention, and to hold it confidently, in spite of any detractors.
My little guy may not yet be able to rock Vasisthasana, but he can most definitely practice being grounded and peaceful and strong. He can learn to see the spark of divinity in everyone. And he can work with his breath to stay calm when things get intense.
Colin Kaepernick modeled it first.
My son is white. He was born into privilege just because of his gender and the color of his skin. He doesn’t even know it yet. But that’s all the more reason for him to wear a Kaepernick jersey, and to learn why. Because it’s on all of us to combat oppression. It’s on all of us, more than ever, to call out the racism flooding our campuses and our schools, our churches and our homes.
This is yoga.
And we should all join Kaepernick in taking a knee.
Rachel Meyer is a Portland, Oregon-based writer and yoga teacher. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, On Being, Yoga Journal, Tricycle, Yoga International, HuffPost, and more. You can find her at www.rachelmeyeryoga.com or @rachelmeyeryoga.